Word Studies in the New Living Translation ἀνάκειμαι (anakeimai)

Greek:      ἀνάκειμαι (anakeimai)
English:     recline (at table), be a dinner guest

by Jonathan W. Bryant, PhD; Senior Editor, Tyndale Bibles; Bible Translation Committee

When we hear or see the word recline, we might picture someone seated in a large, comfortable chair, pulling a lever, and leaning back as the top of the chair angles back. For the most part, we would not associate that image of reclining with eating a meal, an activity we typically do while sitting straight up at a table.

So it might surprise us to discover that in the first-century Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds, meals were often eaten in a reclined position. When people shared a meal at a dinner party or banquet, they would indeed surround a table, but they would lie on a couch or cushion with their heads near the table and feet away from the table, eating while propped up on an elbow. As such, the Greek word used throughout the Gospels to describe eating at a shared meal is a word that means “recline.”

The term ἀνάκειμαι (pronounced ah-NAHK-ay-mai) essentially means “to recline.” But in the New Testament, this term always occurs in the context of a shared meal. So the NLT employs dining language to help readers understand that this form of reclining refers specifically to a posture taken while eating a meal. For example:

  • “Meanwhile, Jesus was in Bethany at the home of Simon, a man who had previously had leprosy. While he was eating, a woman came in with a beautiful alabaster jar of expensive perfume and poured it over his head.” (Matthew 26:6-7)
  • “When it was evening, Jesus sat down at the table with the Twelve. While they were eating, he said, ‘I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.’” (Matthew 26:20-21 // Mark 14:17-18)
  • “Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27)
  • “A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him.” (John 12:2)

The NLT makes explicit that contexts of dining are in view when this Greek word appears. In John’s portrayal of the Last Supper, this word appears in a description of one disciple’s posture in relation to Jesus. A literal rendering of this description would be, “One of his disciples, the one whom Jesus loved, was reclining on the bosom of Jesus” (John 13:23; see KJV). The reader should not have the image of a disciple snuggling up to Jesus as a young child might do with a parent. Rather, we should picture a person eating next to Jesus, with his head in relative proximity to Jesus’ chest due to the customary eating posture. Hence, the NLT renders this verse, “The disciple Jesus loved was sitting next to Jesus at the table.”

Anakeimai twice appears as a substantive (a participle functioning as a noun) in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable of the great feast. After the king’s initial invitees refuse to come to the feast, the king invites people from off the streets. These attendees are identified as “those reclining” (anakeimai) at the feast. Given the context, in which the emphasis is on attendance rather than eating, the NLT, along with other translations (including ESV, NIV, NKJV, and NRSV), renders anakeimai here as “guests.”

As these examples suggest, the translation of an ancient-language term into a modern language involves an attentiveness to particular historical contexts.

  • Do we always translate a Greek word with the same English word across different contexts? For example, should anakeimai be rendered the same in the context of
    • a typical shared meal,
    • the Last Supper, and
    • a wedding banquet?
  • Or do the different emphases in different contexts merit a distinct rendering?

It also involves an attentiveness to what a typical reader today would understand about the ancient context. For example, would the simple translation “reclining” help a reader truly understand what’s going on when there is no prior knowledge of ancient dining practices?

These are the types of questions translators must regularly answer. And these questions are best discussed in community (hence the value of a “Bible Translation Committee”), perhaps around a table, though probably not while reclining!

3 thoughts on “Word Studies in the New Living Translation ἀνάκειμαι (anakeimai)

  1. My eyesight is reduced because of Mac Deg and trying to read gray print is very difficult. A blacker font would help.
    Thank you
    Vern Trafford

  2. I was a terrible greek scholar. I wonder if there might have been some looser use of the vocabulary here. I have heard it postulated that in order to “recline” the food would need to be cut in pieces to be eaten with one hand. That requires servants. People who were not wealthy had to sit up and eat at a table. …I guess it’s worth thinking about.

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